Friday, March 24, 2006

In Case You Are Interested

Many people have asked me lately how I think the work of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe can be applied to Kenyan novelist Nguigi Wa Thiong'o's 1977 book _Petals of Blood_. O.K. no one has asked me that and never will, but in my pretend world where people come up to me on the street and ask me about this topic I'd simply whip out the following and give it to them:

African thinker Achille Mbembe, in “African Modes of Self-Writing,” advocates the creation of a new philosophic system of inquiry in order to better confront the challenges facing post-colonial Africa. He sees shortcomings in the current discourse about the African condition, describing it as indulging in too much lamentation of the past and not enough consideration about the present: “…governed though it has been, for the most part, by narratives of loss, such meditation. . . .has not yielded any integrated philosophico-theological inquiry systematic enough to situation human misfortune and wrongdoing in a singular theoretical framework” (239). To Mbembe, this failure to locate a new theoretical framework has real and dangerous implications. More than simply dwelling on the past, these multiple “narratives of loss” cause an environment in which bloodshed is tolerated and where violence is sanctioned.
In an interview with Christian Hoeller, Mbembe raises the theoretical question “How can we account for the contemporary ways in which the political, under the guise of war, of resistance or of the fight against terror, makes the murder of the enemy its primary and absolute objective?” In “African Modes of Self-Writing” Mbembe belies his apparent neutrality as a framer of this question, offering us a working hypothesis in response. He argues that the surrendering of individual subjectivity leads to an economy of death and violence. Whether subjectivity is surrendered to the state or to the private militia, the end results is an exchange economy in which the “dead civilian” (a term he uses in the Hoeller interview) symbolizes the attainment of power. He writes:
“…violent conflicts no longer necessarily imply that those who have weapons oppose each other. Many conflicts are likely to oppose those who have weapons and those who have none…the resulting forms of violence have as their chief goals the physical destruction of people (massacres of civilians, genocides, various kinds of maiming)…” (268).
Mbembe elaborates that such a willingness to kill also involves a willingness to be killed, since the driving force behind the economy of violence is the surrender of one’s subjectivity to the value of “sacrifice”: “Most of these events stem from the idea of history as a sacrificial process. Here the word sacrifice has two senses: self-sacrifice (putting one’s life at someone else’s disposal, getting killed for a cause) and mass murder (the physical annihilation of countless human lives)” (268).
One striking aspect of Mbembe’s model is that it allows for multiplicity—whether violence is perpetuated by individuals acting in the name of a cause, causes acting in the name of individualism, individuals acting in the name of a state, or states acting in the name of individualism. It also accounts for a confluence of divergent ideologies competing amongst one another. As Mbembe states to Hoeller, “…as a temporal formation , the postcolony is definitely an era of dispersed entanglements….From a spatial point of view, it is an overlapping of different, intersected and entwined threats in tension with one another. Here, the task of the analyst is to tease out those threads, to locate those intersections and entwinements.”
Such is the task confronting an analyst of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s novel Petals of Blood. The novel features four protagonists, whose lives are invariably entwined. More than just happenstances of plot, though, the four characters are entwined ideologically. Each has a different way of dealing with what Ngugi would likely call their “neo-colonial” oppression, yet each of their divergent ideologies eventually finds an intersection in the characters’ willingness to disavow their own subjectivity. The surrender of their selfhoods is not linear or predictable, though. Each of them oscillates between surrendering selfhood to a great cause (and thereby in Mbembe’s model entering into an economy of violence) and surrendering selfhood to despair and nothingness in the face of overwhelming oppression. They have a damnable dilemma of not resistance or surrender, but of surrender or assimilation. For in Mbembe’s model, even resistance takes the form of assimilation.
Consider first the character of Abdulla. His distinctive physical feature is a handicap, the missing of a leg, the price he once paid for his past identity of a revolutionary. He has become a marked man, a symbol of the power wielded by the state. According to Mbembe, a body such as Abdulla’s is the site with which the state reminds the individual of its power: “Trauma has become something quasi-permanent. Memory is physically embedded in bodies marked with the signs of their own destruction, moving through a general landscape of fragmentation and economic decay” (267). The general landscape that Mbembe speaks of becomes a very particular landscape when Abdulla arrives and sets up shop in Ilmorog. It is worth noting too that Abdulla is a typically Mbembeian victim in that he was a weapon-less victim at the hands of those who had weapons. In fact, it was the attempted attainment of weapons that led to the death of his friend Nding’uri. It is perhaps also noteworthy that Abdulla’s idol Ole Masai was killed when his gun malfunctioned—far from being a guarantee of safety, the loss of arms in this economy is a symbol for easy victimhood.
Abdulla retreats from the political world and into his own world. He finds meaning by entering into a surrogate family unit with the orphan Joseph and with his donkey, and later in a business partnership with Wanja. However, it is the loss of Joseph (to school), the donkey, the business, and Wanja which eventually leads to a total withdrawal not only from the political realm, but from any attempt to construct a personal identity. He ends up in the slum, drinking cheap Theng’eta. Yet try as he might, he can not escape from the latent desire to once again assert his political consciousness. When visited by Karega, he is reminded of the ghost of Nding’uri (Karega’s brother), and he is once again roused into the economy of war. Eventually he gets to a mental state in which “He was Mobotu…he was Amin…he was his own donkey…He was so many things, so many different people, but himself. At the same time he felt weak, as if he was losing the last shred of his manhood” (315). This leads not to an explosion of emotion, but more eerily, to a surrender of consciousness: “He was suddenly very lucid, calm inside. A sixteen year mist had cleared….Kimeria would die” (316).
Though Abdulla surrenders his “manhood” in order to ultimately enter into the economy of violence, Wanja was born into a patriarchal society without even the benefit of a manhood to surrender. Instead, she spends most of her life surrendering her womanhood to men’s desires: first to merely survive, then for the benefit of her village when she gave herself to Kimeria, and finally as a means to enter, not the economy of violence, but rather the dehumanizing economy of commoditization, as she decides that one must, “Eat or you are eaten” (293). Her tactical pragmatism has always amazed Karega: “…he could not help marveling at how Wanja could be different people in different times and places and situations” (322). Much like Abdulla’s multiple personalities, Wanja’s condition leads to a loss of autonomy. She kills Kimeria, but it is not her own degradation that provides the motivation that drives the panga into his chest, rather “…it was the picture of her grandfather that now stood vivid in her mind as Kimeria knocked at the door” (329). Much like Abdulla was acting on the politics of a deceased friend, Wanja acts on the politics of her grandfather, who was willing to sacrifice himself for his cause (and in a re-occurrence of the motif of the weaponless victim, was killed when his gun malfunctioned).
Although Karega and Wanja are willing to enter into the economy of violence, they are spared from having to make a sacrifice in the form of a deus ex machina. Munira is the one who actually has to suffer for entering this economy. Through most of the narrative, he seems an unlikely character for this fate, as his subjectivity is alternately surrendered to either Wanja or hopelessness, but never to a cause that would demand sacrifice. However, he finds such a cause in the belief system that is centered around the notion of sacrifice—Christianity. His brand is a particularly zealous Pentecostal Christianity at that, the type of faith which allows for gifts of prophecy or special knowledge, called “charisma.” Mbembe says of this phenomenon: “Charisma is particularly interesting in that it encompasses two apparently contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, it represents the zenith of individuality as well as of shared experience….charisma marks investiture with a distinct, autonomous power and authority that is benevolently exercised in the service of a community” (270).
In other words, it gives the individual license to act as an agent on behalf of the community. It is with such license, and a corresponding surrender of personal subjectivity, with which Munira commits his murderous act of violence: “He, Munira, had willed and acted, and he felt, as he knelt down to pray, that he was no longer an outsider, for he had finally affirmed his oneness with the law” (333). In this sentence he encompasses Mbembe’s “contradictory tendencies”: he asserts his subjectivity “He, Munira, had willed and acted” while at the same time surrendering it to something greater: “he had finally affirmed his oneness with the law.”
Munira commits his act ostensibly to save Karega. Despite their differences, the two have much in common. They both believe in community and in surrendering autonomy to the greater good, even if that means sacrifice, either of self or others. The narrative ends ambiguously, but with the suggestion that Karega supports violent revolution in order to stop what he sees as a system that leads to oppression. In his harsh rhetoric: “These few who had prostituted the whole land turning it over to foreigners for thorough exploitation, would drink people’s blood….The system and its gods and its angels had to be fought consciously, consistently, and resolutely by all its working people!” (344). The invocation, even metaphorical, of “gods” and “angels” gives credence to Mbembe’s attack on Marxist paradigms as ultimately mystical. He calls it a “…mechanistic and reified vision of history. Causality is attributed to entities that are fictive and wholly invisible” (243). Karega’s oppression might be real, but his continued participation in his oppressor’s economy, in Mbembe’s model, is what gives fuel to the fire. It also prevents the hard work necessary to construct a new philosophic model for Africa, one in which individuality can flourish without sacrifice.


Blogger Cristina Williams said...

Wow... i think that is the longest post ever!!! :) Anyways, i was wondering, what is the deadline for posting on the weekends? Like what begins the new week? Is it sunday? Because i think i might have missed the deadline this weekend by just a few minutes. I know this is a random comment but it was something that i was wondering about so i thought i would ask.

11:12 PM  
Blogger Azor said...


Just for acknowledging this "longest post ever" you get to post as late as you want and it still counts :-)

Actually, I'm pretty flexible when it comes to you posting comments-- I just want to see evidence that you are reading other's blogs.

9:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, i wasn't interested.

12:24 PM  

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